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                                                        Flickhead

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Let’s do the time warp again

A new DVD looks back on heady times, from El Topo through Eraserhead

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Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. Written, produced and directed by Stuart Samuels. 88 minutes. Released in 2005. $19.98 from Starz Home Entertainment.

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    Review by Ray Young

        Published in 1983, Stuart Samuels’s Midnight Movies was the first book to address a brief but notable moment in film culture: El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder they Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead were immensely popular in the 1970s, but only in the then-trendy witching hour slot. Two decades later, the author revisits the phenomenon in Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, a fast and engrossing documentary produced in 2005 for Starz that’s now available on DVD.
        After teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Samuels began working in film and television in the 1980s. One of his most popular pictures is the documentary Visions of Light (1992), an elegant ode to cinematographers co-directed with Arnold Glassman and Todd McCarthy. Midnight Movies finds him armed with film clips and interviews with filmmakers, exhibitors and critics who attempt to convey the guerilla spirit of a bygone era. Whether or not he succeeds may depend on the viewer’s age. Raised with the instant gratification of VCRs and generally supportive of corporate values, ‘Generation X’ may find itself at a loss here, but those of us who were in the theaters at midnight during the ‘70s—grooving on raw talent, smoking joints and condemning The Establishment—should find this dizzying expedition rather intoxicating.
        There was nothing unique about showing movies at midnight, and ‘cult films’ were descendants of the sleeper. In a period reeling from assassination, war and police brutality aimed squarely at the Left, anarchy filled the air along with all that pot smoke. “Sometime in the ‘60s people became cynical and ironic,” says Roger Ebert, one of Samuels’s interviewees. “Midnight movies were the opening wedge in the birth of irony.” Family values were an early casualty, followed by a common distrust in anyone over thirty. The films offered new attitudes to an audience clamoring for change.

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    “Mainstream society hated these movies
    and was against everything they believed in.”
    —John Waters

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    Divine in Pink Flamingos

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        “Mainstream society hated these movies and was against everything they believed in,” John Waters remembers. Young filmmakers pushed the envelope and tore down existing barriers—the cynicism, irony, violence, satire, surrealism and general lack of polish defied everything that Hollywood, television and the media stood for. Yet the fallout was (and continues to be) more profound than one may believe. “[Things are] radically different today,” Waters continues. “Everything that was in midnight movies is [now] in Hollywood movies. Everything that midnight movies offered has become American humor.” Ebert adds, “Today we live totally in an age of irony, almost to the point where it’s impossible to be ironic because everything is ironic.” Add to that an outré mellowing process: the scenes from Pink Flamingos (1972) now seem strangely quaint and endearing.

        The degree of importance of the six films covered in Midnight Movies may hinge on the whens, wheres and with whoms you first saw them. A decade before VCRs made shut-ins of so many once-devout moviegoers, the thrill of the midnight show was twofold. “The excitement came not only from the film but from the audience,” says Bob Shaye of New Line Cinema. “It was like being in a den of cinematic iniquity.” Pioneering theatres such as the Elgin in Manhattan and the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts were notoriously lax about pot smoking (“It was a 400-seat opium den,” says Larry Jackson, manager of the Welles) and downplayed promotion, relying instead on word of mouth.
        A movie no one had ever heard of by an unknown director, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) was announced in a single line of type at the bottom of the Elgin’s newspaper ad. It played to a few stragglers its first midnight, but in less than a week the lines went around the block. “It’s the audience that creates the cult, not the filmmakers,” says the Elgin’s Ben Barenholtz. El Topo—at once frightening, sensual, outrageous, grotesque, comical—became a trend, and prospered every night at twelve for six months.
        It drew the attention of celebrities and the press. John Lennon was so blown away by the picture that he convinced his manager to purchase the rights. It was moved to an upscale Manhattan venue with an aggressive marketing campaign, and played day and night. As if to underline why they’re called midnight movies, El Topo in prime time bombed almost immediately. “It got blown out in three days,” says Alan Douglas, the film’s original promoter.
        Samuels follows the subsequent chain of hits that appeared in an increasing number of revival theaters. Old curios rented for pennies, Freaks (1932) and Reefer Madness (1936) played to capacity crowds with people sitting in the aisles. Night of the Living Dead (1968) became the reigning midnight champ in 1971, aptly reflecting, in director George Romero’s words, “a new society swallowing up the old.” The Harder They Come (1972) introduced the world to reggae and was the first midnight movie with a hit soundtrack. The biggest sensation was Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a box office flop that blossomed into a perennial cash cow. Eraserhead (1977) closed out the decade and the genre, its introspective aura signaling the end of hippie solidarity.
        Romero, Jodorowsky and Waters all give particularly vibrant interviews in Midnight Movies, but Samuels’s entire lineup of guests—including Perry Henzell, Richard O’Brien, David Lynch, and critics J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum (who co-wrote a different book titled Midnight Movies in 1991)—are informative and amusing. Tied together with choice scenes and inventive visual effects (plus infectious theme music—anyone have an mp3?), it delivers history with freewheeling verve, an excellent summation of a heady generation lost in space.